Keeping the Human Image Alive: An Interview with Edward Hirsch

by Zachary Greenberg


Edward Hirsch is the author of eight books of poetry, including Wild Gratitude, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and most recently The Living Fire, a new and selected volume.  Hirsch is also the author of several books of prose, including the bestselling How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.  Currently he is president of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Interviewer: Congratulations on your new and selected, The Living Fire, that came out earlier this year.  What particularly surprised you in gathering together this collection?

Hirsch: The thing about putting together a retrospective collection is you can’t help but feel your own mortality; you can’t help but feel how long you’ve been writing poetry.  The persistence of certain concerns, your obsessions, and then the developments of differences in your work.  But it is a retrospective glance, and it feels like you’ve come to a certain age, so it has a shadow of mortality over it.  I expected putting the collection together to be difficult, but it was even more difficult than I quite expected to take the poems from the context of their original books, because I worked really hard to make cohesive books, and I felt something was lost and it was painful to take the poems out of their original context.  But the hope is that something is gained by the continuity of putting them together.

Interviewer: Insomnia, or the long night of the soul, is a recurring theme in your work.  There seems to even be an intimate, almost sibling rivalry with the night, when you write a line like, “let 5 o’ clock come with its bandages of light [from “Four A.M. in Earthly Measures],” or “now here is the night / with its false promise of sleep [from “Dusk in For the Sleepwalkers.” This seems to reach back to an ancient trope, calling out to the muse, or to God, to carry us through the night? Can you speak to this?

Hirsch: Yes, it is a trope that runs through mystical poetry.  It began for me with my own insomnia, and most people have seen insomnia as a persistent theme in my work; but I early on discovered that I liked the situation that insomnia set up inside a poem, I liked the drama created by insomnia; the feeling that other people were asleep and you were a solo consciousness, you were alone, and the solitude that it created dramatically, I liked.  The consciousness of a single voice, or a single writer under a lamp when everything else was dark, created a certain feeling I liked in poetry.  It loosened the mind for reverie, for a certain kind of dreamscape, and then, I didn’t begin with this in mind, but I looked for models in other poets who had written out of the night, and I came across early on St. John’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” and I liked the spiritual feeling it gave you.  I saw that mystical poetry,  “the hour of midnight strikes,” and its attachment to epiphany, had a certain kind of luminosity, and I could play off that sense of the epiphanic, or the anti-epiphanic, the epiphany that didn’t come, or the community of other people that were in this situation, or the comedy of the spiritual quest that is thwarted, or doesn’t break through.  So it’s been very recurrent for me and it seems somewhat inexhaustible.  The other part about setting your poems at night is that the daylit mind, the common sensical world, is somewhat repressed, and for this other hour of night, the other senses are heightened, and you have a chance for a poetry that would cross over, to try and approach a non-temporal realm, and that has been very productive for me in thinking about what I want poetry to do.

Interviewer: This crossover seems evident in “Dawn Walk,” the poem that closes Wild Gratitude, and in some ways closes your first two books of poems, as the speaker walks out into “the courtyards / unscarred by human footprints.”  And then the grateful address:  “So thanks to the / Blue morning, to the blue spirit / Of winter, to the soothing blue gift / Of powdered snow!”  and closing with “The simple astonishing news / That we are here, / Yes, we are still here.” No one would wish insomnia on someone, but the blue reward of daybreak is a pretty good pay off, isn’t it?

Hirsch: There is a celebratory moment at the end of “Dawn Walk,” which is also the end of For the Sleepwalkers and Wild Gratitude, that after all we’ve gone through, the dark night of the soul, you are still here to tell the tale; and there is meant to be something very emphatic in that celebration that we are here, and then it says yes, it agrees, the assent, we’re still here, after all of this.  So yes, there is some joy, some celebration, some symbolic breakthrough that comes with the breaking of the day and what it stands for at the end of these poems.  Now I have to say that especially in Wild Gratitude there is a historical dimension to this because it’s not just the dark night of the soul individually, but the third section of Wild Gratitude is all about the dark night of the soul historically, the twentieth century and what we’ve gone through, and the crisis of having come through the worst century so far.  So it wasn’t meant just to be personal, but it was also meant that we’ve come through this terrible suffering, and survived it, and after all we’ve done to each other, and after all that’s happened, we’re still here.

Interviewer: The Night Parade, your third book of poems, marked some decidedly new directions in your work, most notably the implementation of the dropped down line, a la Charles Wright, or Ezra Pound.  Can you speak to these decisions, particularly in the conception of the book as a whole?

Hirsch: I wanted to widen my line. As I moved into the poems I was writing for The Night Parade, I wanted to be able to write more narrative poems, but I didn’t want to lose the lyrical feeling.  I wanted to create the space to include other kinds of information that I was finding difficult to get into poems, and I hit upon this line that Ezra Pound first developed in The Cantos and that William Carlos Williams turned into the three-ply line and Charles Wright beautifully refined as, there’s no real name for it, but the dropped down line, the long line with a kick, that creates a special kind of phrasing out of the second part of the line, which isolates it.  I found that the use of that line, which did not become permanent in my poetry, but I felt I used well, or tried to use well in this book in particular, enabled me to tell stories that I wasn’t otherwise able to get into lyric poetry, and that I could tell the story without losing a certain kind of lyrical finish.  I saw that Wright had done that beautifully in The Southern Cross, and The Other Side of the River, and so that was a model in how he had turned the line from Pound.  The Night Parade is a personal book, but those other poets helped guide me to the lineation that enabled me to write more personal poems.

Interviewer: And the way that Wright borrowed the line from Pound, and changed it; you reclaimed it in a more narrative construct, in a way those other poet’s hadn’t used it.

Hirsch: I wanted to write poems that were telling stories, but I didn’t want to sacrifice a certain kind of music, and so the dropped line enabled me, at least as I felt, to create a musical feeling, a lyrical pressure, while opening my poems a little bit to be able to tell certain kinds of stories.

Interviewer: On the subject of stories in The Night Parade, in the poem “Siblings” you write, “the story of siblings is the story of childhood / experienced separately and together… memories carved into official and unofficial versions”; can you say more about this declarative?

Hirsch: I hadn’t seen any poems about this subject, which seemed to me a very striking truth.  The subject of siblings hasn’t been addressed much in lyric poetry.  There are elegies for siblings, but the complication of the fact that you grow up in a household and share so many of the same experiences, but your perspectives can be so radically different, seemed to me very striking.  The poem basically grew out of the story the poem tells, and my sister will still say, well that’s not how it happened, but of course that’s the point of the poem; your viewpoint is so radically different from where you are in the family of what happens, that you sometimes wonder if you’re actually telling the same stories; and only when you get to a certain age does this even become interesting to you.  You get to be a certain age and you realize your siblings are the only ones who shared these experiences with you, and are the only ones you can actually talk to about them.  But then you find you can and you can’t talk about it with them because the views that they hold turn out to be radically different from the way you see it, and so I thought this was an interesting subject for a poem—it began by a family occasion and telling the story about what you found charming, your sister found mortifying; and I thought telling the story was interesting, but telling the story and thinking about the way such stories work was even more so.  Both the poem “Siblings” and the poem “Family Stories” in The Night Parade try to worry the problem about the nature of storytelling within a family and how the stories radically differentiate themselves; and so you have the same childhood but you have different childhoods.

Interviewer: This makes me think about How To Read A Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, when you write about how friendship, an important part of our lives, is also strangely absent from the history of lyric poetry.

Hirsch: It’s a peculiar and complicated zone of poetry, how lyric poetry frames certain subjects and leaves out others.  The poetry of friendship seems to me very important, and yet it’s an overlooked category.  It turns out it’s hard to write about male to male friendship, as I’m sure it’s hard to write about female to female friendship.  There isn’t really a zone for this kind of subject matter where you’re not blood relatives, and you’re not lovers. It seems to me interesting to think about how to write a lyric poem that situates itself in the zone of friendship without any erotic overtones.  The poets I’ve learned the most from in this are the Chinese poets because they have a great tradition of the poetry of friendship; saluting each other, the poetry of the wave, and the poetry of connections and missed connections between friends.  As soon as you observe or feel something like this then it’s exciting to try to widen the corpus of lyric poetry and say well, lets try to make this a subject, both in terms of writing about poetry, as in How To Read A Poem, and also in my own poems.

Interviewer: I am taken by the way you use sports as a trigger of memory, as a mound, or hinge, to move back and forth between time, as seen not only in “Siblings,” but also “Fast Break” [from Wild Gratitude], and “Execution” [from The Night Parade].

Hirsch: When I started writing poetry, if you had told me I was going to write about sports, I would’ve told you that you were out of your mind.  I was playing sports all the time, but I wanted to write about Paul Klee, about going to the Art Institute of Chicago and discovering Edward Hopper, and I wanted to write about the poets I was reading and the world of culture I was trying to enter, that I was dreaming about.  In For the Sleepwalkers there isn’t anything about sports.  You wouldn’t have known I ever played sports.  It was only in Wild Gratitude when I was moving deeper into my thirties that I began to recognize I had spent a tremendous amount of my life playing sports and it hadn’t been in my work at all, and somehow that began to feel like a weakness to me.  So much of my life had been zoned out of poetry, and as we’ve discussed I felt I didn’t have a language for it.  We know poetry is well suited in dealing with love, or in dealing with death, but how does it deal with baseball, or football, or basketball.  So I began looking into this, not only my own experience, but also the language of sports as it’s been written about; and it turns out there is an enormous literature in American poetry related to baseball, because it’s pastoral, but much less about any of the other sports, so that’s why I began to write about basketball in “Fast Break,” and football in “Execution.”  I began to take a certain pleasure in bringing in the language of sports that I hadn’t seen very often in lyric poetry, and it seemed  energizing to bring the actual experiences and language of sports into poems.  And them, not that I set out to do this, but what set in were Proustian memories; that writing in the language of sports got to something else.  After all, I’m not a sports writer.  Poems that are just about sports turned out not to be that interesting to me.  I have written many more than I published.  The things that were interesting was when sport became a metaphor for something, and when sport got to some other kind of human situation, and when it triggered something I had overlooked in my own experience, then it became a kind of opportunity for me.

Interviewer: I can’t say the word ‘execution’ anymore without thinking about its dual meaning.

Hirsch: “Execution, the elegy for my football coach, brings together the language of football with my reading of Metaphysical poetry.  The way the Metaphysical poets drove through a conceit and explored it as far as they could.  I thought it would be lively and interesting and funny, in a certain kind of way, certainly playful, to take this thinking I found in John Donne and George Herbert and the other Metaphysical poets, and apply it to an American football coach.  The word execution jumped out at me, in thinking through the poem as my coach’s favorite word, as a word that has a lot of consequence in football, suddenly had these tremendous overtones in terms of mortality.  And so ‘execution’ suddenly could do a lot of work for you in a poem in terms of what it means literally in football in terms of making a play work perfectly, and what it meant for his mortality.

Interviewer: One idea that keeps surfacing in this discussion, and in your work at large, is how we can use the framework of lyric poetry to, frankly, address our entire lives.

Hirsch: You come to a reconciliation at a certain point that it may not have been the life you exactly wanted, or the life you fantasized, or it may not have had the cultural qualities you desired, but it is the life you had, and it’s your job to bring that life into poetry, that’s your task.  It’s not your job to have Milton’s experiences, or Shelley’s experiences, or Spenser’s experiences.  You can read them, you need to read them, and you learn from them and adapt them, but you have to reconcile yourself to the life you’ve actually had, and the joy and the excitement and the trauma of bringing that into poetry and transforming it into something.

Interviewer: Okay, now we’re going to switch gears into the holy sphere of poetry.  We can’t deny that we’re conducting this interview on the eve of Yom Kippur, which as a young Jewish poet, tickles me…

Hirsch: …Tomorrow you can atone for this question.

Interviewer: I have to ask, as we’re not supposed to write or work on Yom Kippur, what happens tomorrow if a great line of verse comes through the head?

Hirsch: Well if it’s a great line of verse I think it’s okay to remember it.  You should be able to remember it.  I mean, hopefully God will be tricked if you feel you need to write it down, but you’ll have to wait another year to atone for it.  But I think if it really is that great of a line, you should be able to remember it.

Interviewer: Nice.  Okay.  I know you have reflected on poems inspired by Yom Kippur, particularly in Poet’s Choice, and I wanted to ask how you perceive the contemporary relationship between Judaism and poetry?

Hirsch: There are many American Jewish poets and sometimes they have mined their experiences in interesting ways, but not many people have thought very hard about what it means to be a Jew or an American Jew and how that might operate in poetry.  I think it’s interesting to brood about what a Jewish poet is, not only in contemporary life, but also in the history of poetry, and if there are continuities; or is it just enough to write out of your own experiences and some of those experiences are Jewish.  I like to think a little harder, particularly in the essay in Poet’s Choice, about what are the consequences of writing a Jewish poetry, rather than, just say, writing about immigrant experience, and having immigrant grandparents, or immigrant parents, and they were Jewish, and therefore you write about something that was Jewish.

Interviewer: Can you address some of these historical consequences?

Hirsch: I think the most powerful thing is that Jews are a people of the book, and one of the things that defines Judaism is the covenant with God, and the sense of history that is built into Judaism as part of what it means to be Jewish.  So I think one of the complications of being an American Jew, and being an American Jewish poet in particular, is that America is a very ahistorical country, and American poetry tends to be very ahistorical because Americans are ahistorical.  Henry Ford said “history is bunk,” and there’s something very exciting about the ways that Americans and American poetry keep reinventing itself, because it’s all second acts and third acts, and it’s all newness in terms of how people can keep reinventing their identities.  But not many people, therefore, have reflected that as an American Jew you are pulled into two different directions, that American life takes you into the present but Judaism takes you into the past.  I feel that I was sort of shaped on the conflict, or the crucible, of this experience, that on the one hand you live in the present and you forget the past, and then on the other you’re obsessed with the past and not living in the present so much.  There are a few poems where I try to think about this:  “The Poet at Seven,” [from On Love] and  “My First Theology Lesson” [from Lay Back the Darkness], where an American experience comes up against a Jewish experience, and you feel the conflict of the presentness versus the great historical sense which I think is crucial to what Judaism is as a religion.

Interviewer: In your essay in Poet’s Choice you cite Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Yom Kippur 1984” from Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) which you call “a key poem from one of her finest collections.”

Hirsch: If we had the time and we could go through all of Adrienne Rich’s work I think I could show you the moment where her work turns from being a separatist poetry towards being a more inclusive poetry; where men are actually included as opposed to excluded from her work, and I think it is related to her sense of being not just a women but of being a Jew.  Now I am not speaking about her personally, I don’t know her very well, and I greatly admire her.  But in her poetry you can see her recovering and discovering her sense of Jewishness, and when Jewishness becomes part of her subject matter she begins to see her father and other men also as victims, not just as oppressors.  And when she sees the Jew as a victim her poetry becomes much more inclusive, and I would say more forgiving of certain things that have happened to her and certain people; and I think it becomes a great discovery in her work.  While I admire her work all the way through, it takes on another kind of historical turn, and another kind of consciousness, and another kind of compassion, when she relates herself, and starts thinking of herself, as a Jewish poet.

Interviewer: Before we move on I have to ask you about your poem “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944,” [from Lay Back the Darkness] and how it fits into this dialogue?

Hirsch: I think the issue is about remembering.  I don’t we can afford to forget what’s happened; I don’t think we can afford to let things go and pretend they don’t exist.  There has to be some kind of historical continuity, some sense of remembering those who have gone before us, and those who have died.  One of the projects of poetry is to keep alive the human image, and to keep alive the image of those who have come before us.  I don’t think we can afford to forget the Holocaust, or other holocausts.  Now that being said, we also need a language by which we write about these events in lyric poetry.  I don’t think it would be appropriate for us as contemporary American Jewish poets who write now in the twenty first century to write about the Holocaust the way Paul Celan wrote about the Holocaust.  I just think it would be wrong; and I wouldn’t say exactly unethical, but it seems to me not appropriate.  There’s also now a history of Holocaust poetry, and it seems to me to write in a sophisticated way in your account of what you’re writing about, that history is part of your subject matter.  It’s just not writing about something as if you were a historical witness to it, and I think this is one of the great problems with Carolyn Forche’s anthology Against Forgetting, or thinking about witnessing.  The poetry she’s collected in this anthology is great, but the thinking about witnessing is only for those who actually saw certain experience, and I think that witnessing is more complicated than that, and it is necessary to write beyond those who saw the experience.  I just think that you can’t write in the same documentary way to things that didn’t happen to you, yet it’s important to keep these things alive.  I think it’s useful to feel the anxiety of influence when writing about subjects as large as the Holocaust.  How do you take on something, what is your angle, and how are you going to write about it, because the issue of representation is inevitably going to come in.  So I think you do it with a certain awareness of the poetry that has come before and your own position in relationship to the material.

Interviewer: The term ‘keeping the human image alive’ seems exact in your choice to use the image of the children’s drawing as your lens.

Hirsch: The question is how do you write that poem.  What style do you use?  How do you take on the subject?  I had known those drawings for years but I hadn’t figured out how to write about them, although they had been seared into my consciousness, until I got the idea that there must have been a teacher.  So when I began to research who that teacher might have been, I discovered Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, and I felt I had an angle on this experience that would be useful to me, and I had something that no one had written before that I had known about.  People had written a lot about the Holocaust, but no one had really written about these children’s drawings or the fact that someone had to be teaching art in Terezin.  And that seemed to me a heroic enterprise, this teacher who was gathering the materials and believed in the spirit of art enough so that these children could express themselves.  I felt that I had something there that I could write, that I wanted to write, about a teacher who was trained at the Bauhaus by Paul Klee and others and had the idea that children’s drawing have a kind of genius, and brought that idea under those excruciating circumstances of Terezin.  I wanted to honor that, and it seemed worthwhile to honor, to preserve her image and her moral lesson, and then honor the children who even in these excruciating situations were making art.  I had to caution myself all the way through not to sentimentalize, and not to find a transcendental vision when there wasn’t one.  I mean, there were 15,000 children, and 14,900 were killed.  We can’t pretend here about what happened.  The question is, how do you write about that?  I decided to make an art parable.  Think of a doll, each one of those children making a paper doll, now take 14,900 of the dolls, and burn them, that’s what you’ve got left.

Interviewer: Moving on, yet still along the idea of the power of art, in How to Read A Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry, you discuss the difference between “the muse” and “the beloved,” and then even more so in The Demon and the Angel you bring in Lorca’s idea of  “duende.”  What are some of these subtle distinctions?

Hirsch: I started thinking about this when I read the statement by Joseph Brodsky in that the beloved is irreplaceable but the muse passes on to someone else.  [from Brodsky’s essay Altra Ego: "Herein lies the ultimate distinction between the Beloved and the Muse: the latter doesn't die.]  There’s an exchange to another poet with the muse, but not with the beloved.  So then in thinking through Lorca’s essay where he says the muse is above but the duende force comes from within, it seemed that we’re all talking about different ways of thinking about inspiration, and therefore thinking about where poetry comes from.  The muse, the beloved, and duende, are three ways of thinking of what is the source of poetry, and all three seem to me different names or different ways to think about something that is not entirely reasonable, not entirely subject to the will, not entirely rational.  And whenever these forces are invoked it seems that something is being invoked about poetry that differentiates poetry from say, the essay.  They are names for a certain kind of thinking which Keats calls “non consequitive thinking,” and the mystery of writing poetry is to harness this non-consequitive thinking, or associative thinking, and the mystery of the fact that poetry isn’t entirely at the dispensation of the will.  The collective unconscious is another name for this source that is outside of rational thinking.  The thing I found stimulating about Lorca in particular in duende was the idea that the muse is above and the inspiration comes from below; inspiration is not something we get from on high, but something that comes up from the earth, and I found it very useful in thinking about darker inspiration rather than lighter inspiration.

Interviewer: In How to Read a Poem, you speak about how the music in Latin American poetry stems from the premise of “lullabies that wound.”  So again, in a contemporary framework, do you believe the poet is best served by meeting our climate with poems that wound, or poems that look towards a “bandage of light,” to take your phrase?

Hirsch: We live in cynical times and I recognize why most American poetry is cynical.  It’s cynical about power, it’s cynical of language, its cynical about the lies of politics; it’s skeptical about pretty much everything, especially language and the way it has been used.  So I think it would be naïve of us to ignore what’s actually happening in the world, and I don’t think we can search for optimistic things as if things haven’t happened in the twentieth century.  I don’t think we can afford or look for or want a poetry that ignores suffering or a poetry that wounds.   Yet it also seems to me a crucial line of American poetry, to be written in what Emerson calls the optative mood, is being completely neglected now.  One of the deep impulses of American poetry is the celebratory.  So I think poetry is a quest, and I wouldn’t want a poetry that ignores the suffering or what’s wounded or what you have to go through to get to the other side, but I think the idea of trying to get to the other side, the idea of seeking some healing, the idea of seeking some bandages, that seems to be a deeply American way of thinking.  If you’re a reader of Emerson you feel there is something in the American spirit that does seek for some affirmation from the other side, and I think looking for, or questing for that affirmation seems noble.

Interviewer: To close along the idea of the optative mood, we here at Nashville Review, in Music City, look for narrative and poetic links between music and literature.  What is your creative relationship with music?

Hirsch: When I listen to music late at night I listen to music that will console me, and I listen almost entirely to classical music, where as during the day I like to listen to jazz, but I find it not as helpful late at night, in terms of getting me wired up.  I have many friends who listen to music while they write, but I’ve never been able to.  For some reason music takes up a certain space in my brain and it competes with writing poetry.  Poetry has always had a complicated relationship to music, and an interesting one.  You might say that poetry is bordered on one side by its relationship with the visual arts and its bordered on its other side by its relationship to music.  I’m cognizant of the fact that for much of the history of poetry, poetry and music were not separate arts, that poets saw it as the same thing.  It’s really not until the Renaissance that poetry and music began to take different terms; and after that, the relationship became analogical.  Poets often refer to themselves as singers, but they are actually writers, and I’m aware that music has certain advantages over poetry, but also certain disadvantages from poetry.  The main difference is the relationship of the words on their own, which have musical qualities, but also have other qualities in terms of meaning.  You’re using things that are cycled in the culture, and that language is used by other people, and so I think music becomes a metaphor for something you are aspiring to through language, which you can never attain, which is some kind of pure feeling.  The language of music, somehow, is able to hit this pure feeling, but it doesn’t have words, and words give you something additional, in terms of making meaning.  So finally I think for us they are separate arts.  I would say poetry both does and does not aspire to the condition of music.

Interviewer: That’s great, this framing, that on one edge of the spectrum we have music, and on the other edge is the visual art, and poetry moves between them.

Hirsch: Yes—we are somewhere in between.


Listen to Edward Hirsch’s Special Orders, Cotton Candy, and Fast Break

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